Welcome to One Last Move, where our writers pitch a move to the Mets that would close out their off-season and make the team better in 2019.
The Mets have spent the off-season espousing the virtues of depth. And while that seems to somehow preclude high-impact depth (looking wistfully your way, Bryce Dallas Machado), they have nonetheless done a solid job this offseason in shoring up most areas of the team with talent at or close to the MLB level. Save for one area of the 2019 team still glaringly top heavy and devoid of depth—the starting rotation.
Headlined by the reigning NL Cy Young winner and backed by the boundless potential of Noah Syndergaard and a burgeoning Zack Wheeler, the Mets continually factor in discussions of the best rotation in baseball. However, the talented but mercurial Steven Matz and veteran Jason Vargas are far from sure things at the back of the rotation. And expecting to use only five starters in a season is about as smart as the idea that, oh… one player should be able to play the field while another player takes their turn at bat.
Putting aside Seth Lugo (assuming he maintains his vital bullpen role), the current 6+ positions on the starting depth chart would likely feature mid-level prospects perhaps not ready for prime time (i.e., Corey Oswalt) and off-season depth additions (e.g., Hector Santiago, Kyle Dowdy) that are more suited to the bullpen or the occasional emergency or opener start. Ergo, an ideal final move would be someone who can push/replace Vargy if First-Half Jason rears his frightening visage, or who could stabilize the rotation in the event of injury.
My first thought for this was Gio Gonzalez, who has been covered here and elsewhere as a candidate for this role. And that—or any remaining starter—would not be an objectionable depth add. But Gio’s declining K rate (7.79 K/9 last year) and increasing walk percentage (10.7%) give some pause, especially if Gonzalez is seeking a two-year deal. Not to mention the unscientific estimate that he likely racked up about half of his above 2 WAR each of the last seven seasons by pitching against the Mets. So the one last move I’d propose the Mets make right now (small stakes table) is for a man named Clay.
Clay Buchholz put up an impressive 3.2 bWAR over only 98.1 innings in 2018 while pitching his home games at hitter-friendly Chase Field. Even accounting for some luck (86.6 LOB%) last season and some expected regression this, his 3.47 FIP/ 4.01 xFIP would be more than acceptable from a fifth starter. Last season, Buchholz posted his best K (20.6%) and BB (5.6%) rates since 2015. He averaged 6.1 innings per start last year, and his propensity for keeping the ball on the ground (career 1.39 GB/FB%), keeping it in the park (career 0.9 HR/9 rate) and minimizing walks could potentially be ideal at the back of a rotation.
His checkered injury history is certainly a red flag, but he’d come at a price that would mean minimal risk—and presumably for only one year. At this stage, any starter with a higher floor than Vargas and the lottery ticket potential for a stretch of excellence—as Buchholz displayed last year—would be an ideal add for the Mets as spring approaches.